Bipartisan Energy Bill passes senate, is it good?

Ryan Pollin, ERS, for Zondits. April 21, 2016. Image credit: Silvia_Hartmann

A comprehensive energy bill has passed in the Senate with flying colors, and is now going to be reconciled with a different version of an energy bill that passed the House last year. From the start, sponsors Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pumped the brakes on their respective parties’ major energy policy goals and instead strove to rack up lots of smaller improvements that could be more agreeable. It seems to have worked, and the thought of any bipartisan legislation passing the Senate feels like reason to celebrate. Running down the list of changes, it feels very much like a bag of Halloween candy – a few good ones and a few you’re embarrassed to give away. Here are the highlights of the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015:

  • Improves cybersecurity requirements to existing power plants and distribution systems
  • Permanently reauthorizes the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which designates profits from oil and gas extraction on public lands towards environmental conservation
  • New investments in energy efficiency, energy storage, pumped hydro, marine energy, and grid stability, both in R&D and deployment
  • Encourages large-scale energy storage to ease higher penetration of renewable energy
  • Reclassifies forest biomass (burning freshly cut forest) as a carbon-neutral fuel. This only becomes true through ignoring the time-value effects of carbon emissions, a basic no-no.
  • Weakened environmental impact reviews for natural gas mines and export terminals, and other fossil fuel infrastructure, all aimed at increased fossil fuel exports

The legislation feels very much like a compromise; some reasonable progress is made but all parties walk away unhappy. Jason Kowalski, policy director at says this, “This bill is the VHS tape of climate policy: tolerable in the ‘80s or ‘90s, but not in tune with the scientific realities of 2016.”

Since the last federal energy bill signed by George Bush in 2005, the way we make and use energy has changed substantially. Solar power has gone from 5 gigawatts of installed capacity to beyond 200 gigawatts, wind has gone from about 18 to 190 gigawatts, and both are still getting cheaper by the month. Accelerated retirements of as much as 100 GW worth of coal power plants across the country have dropped the United States’ annual carbon emission by about 10%, with more slated for retirement in the coming years. The U.S. is also now the world leader in oil and gas production. For historical context, let’s break out the provisions of the similarly bipartisan Energy Policy Act of 2005 and try to find some things to be proud of:

Tax breaks and subsidies to the following subject areas:

  • $4.3 billion to nuclear power plants
  • $2.8 billion to fossil fuel production
  • $2.7 billion to renewable energy production credits
  • $1.6 billion in “clean coal” facilities
  • $1.3 billion to energy efficiency
  • $1.3 billion to alternative fuels (bioethanol, liquefied natural gas, propane)
  • $500 million to government agency renewable energy projects

Additionally, there are several key changes to existing policies:

  • Made exemptions to the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act for fracking wastewater, and other oil and gas extraction fluids (“The Halliburton Loophole”)
  • Authorized leasing of offshore territory for energies besides oil and gas
  • Required all public utilities to require net-metering to customers who self-produce energy
  • Banned oil and gas drilling in the Great Lakes
  • Begins the process of commercial leases of public lands for oil shale and tar sands extraction

That’s a long list of frustration for me, and while I am right behind the push for more aggressive climate and energy policy (partisanship be damned, it’s Earth Day and the planet is in peril!), I find some solace in the fact that we aren’t doing as much damage as the last time.